I remember when I was eleven years old doing my very best to cut out my grandfather’s heart and eat it. He was trying to do the same to me, so it was all fair. Plus, it was on Christmas Day, so we deserved some kind of forgiveness, or dispensation, or something like that.
Here’s how it went. On Christmas morning my sister and I assaulted our toy-encircled tree like a troop of baboons, after which my family opened gifts. Then, before we could play with our new toys that made every other toy we’d ever owned look like cow flop, my parents made us get dressed and drove us to my aunt’s house. The entire extended clan ate the noon meal together, with us kids at the short tables. In this way my people broke the holiday bread, reaffirmed our family bonds, and in the afternoon, as the Good Lord intended, we played poker.
I don’t know why we played poker within spitting distance of the Nativity Scene, but that’s what my people did. I didn’t learn much about religion, but I learned that if you’re not playing poker to cut out someone’s heart and eat it, you might as well be playing with a wad of dirty newspaper and a stick. I also learned that faith is a wonderful thing, but don’t draw to an inside straight.
We played for cash. Nobody cared that I was eleven years old. If I was dumb enough to raise into a pair of aces, I must be too stupid to spend my allowance on anything good anyway.
My father didn’t play poker with us. I didn’t think about it then, since he pretty much minded his own business and nobody bugged him about it. But yesterday he explained to me why he didn’t play. When he was in Korea during the war, neither he nor any other marines got paid. The Corps held onto their money, since they sent men to places where there wasn’t a damn thing worth buying anyway. The Corps finally shipped them home on an actual ship, which stopped in Japan so the men could get their back pay in real, U.S. cash.
Poker games broke out in every unused cranny of that ship. Not every man played, but a lot of them did. After all, there weren’t many recreational activities on a ship crammed with marines. However, the main point is that by the time they reached San Diego about six guys owned all the money, and hundreds of fellows were broke.
My father did not play poker. When he got home, he bought a new car.
This is all fantastic evidence that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance. Here’s a fun fact for you. If you look around the poker table and can’t tell who is the least skilled player at the table—you’re the one whose heart is about to be cut out and eaten. Now that I think about it, that’s true of a lot of things in life.
My grandfather died when I was 15. The family drifted, and after a few years the Christmas dinners stopped. We didn’t play poker anymore. But by that time I felt like I was a pretty good player. In my twenties I decided to see how good I was, and I started flying to Las Vegas to play poker. I won a little sometimes, and I never lost much, so I kept playing.
The crazy point came when I landed in Vegas, went straight from the airport to the casino, and played for 40 hours straight. At the end of that time I was $10 ahead. I thought, What the hell? I’d won a lot of hands, and I hadn’t lost too much money on any hands. Then for the first time I paid attention to something I’d seen thousands of times. Every time someone bet, the dealer pulled out ten percent and dropped it in a hole in the table, where it went to pay for electric lights, and Wayne Newton, and hookers for Japanese high-rollers.
It wasn’t enough to be good. You had to be supernatural. I never surrendered poker money to a casino again. I played other games like craps and blackjack, and I lost my ass because I hardly understood them at all.
To wrap this up, jump forward in time to my wedding. I’m not the wildest guy on my block, and my bachelor party was an event of less than thermonuclear festivity. Instead of strippers and tequila, my best and oldest friends came over to my place for the evening, and we bonded by drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker.
I took all their money. I cut out their hearts and ate them. Hey, we were playing poker. Screw ‘em. If my grandfather was fair game, what did they expect?